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Equity vs equality: bridging the inclusivity gap in civil engineering

01 February 2024

Njemile Faustin, Rachel Hayden and Tarisiro Fundira explain the crucial difference between these concepts through a series of examples.

Equity vs equality: bridging the inclusivity gap in civil engineering
This famous illustration explains the difference between the concepts. Image credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change | artist: Angus Maguire

Civil engineers are skilled at solving complex problems relating to the critical infrastructure that improves the day-to-day lives of society.

However, when it comes to the human experience, the concepts of equity and equality present a challenge that's not as easily quantifiable as a bridge load or pile design.

For civil engineers, who are used to more precise solutions, understanding the difference between these two terms is crucial.

For this LGBT+ History Month, we're diving into some examples to illustrate this difference and how equity can create a fairer and more fulfilling work environment for engineers of all backgrounds.

How are equity and equality different?

While the terms equity and equality are often used interchangeably, they are fundamentally different concepts.

In line with the Equality Act 2010, equality means treating all persons the same and offering them the same opportunities, regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristics.

Equity takes fairness a step further to provide support and resources according to a person’s needs to ensure they have the same opportunities on offer.

The baseball analogy

The concepts of equality and equity are often brought to life through a well-known analogy.

Picture a group of individuals trying to watch a baseball game. Each person is standing behind a fence, their view of the game obstructed to varying degrees based on their height.

In the realm of equality, each person is given a box of the same size to stand on.

This approach, grounded in the principle of treating everyone the same, regardless of their individual needs or circumstances, benefits only those of a certain height.

Equity, on the other hand, considers each person's individual needs and circumstances.

In this scenario, boxes are distributed based on each person’s needs, ensuring that everyone can watch the game at the same level (see illustration above).

This approach guarantees that everyone has an equal opportunity to enjoy the game, regardless of their height.

Delving deeper into equity

It’s crucial to question whether everyone in this scenario wants to watch the baseball game in the first place.

The assumption that everyone has the same interests and desires can overlook the diversity of people’s needs and preferences.

Equity is about more than just providing people with what they need to be on the same level as others. It also ensures that their individual needs, preferences, and aspirations are recognised and respected.

Consider the festive season in the UK, which is marked by numerous bank holidays for religious Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter.

In the case of equality, a company might encourage all employees to take time off in December, as most will celebrate Christmas, for example.

However, the equitable solution would be to allow employees to take their annual leave for their individual cultural and religious events, not just around Christmas.

As such, allowing employees to switch their bank holiday days for these cultural and religious celebrations would be the more equitable thing to do.

Consider everyone’s needs

It’s also important to think about team social events that involve alcohol, such as after-work socials and Christmas parties.

These parties could be seen as an example of equality, where everyone is offered the same opportunity to participate in the event.

However, it’s not equitable because it doesn’t consider the needs of those who don’t drink alcohol, or those who may feel uncomfortable in such environments.

An equitable approach would be to organise a variety of social events that cater to the diverse preferences and comfort levels of all employees. Offering non-alcoholic beverages is also an option.

This is the essence of true equity.

Equitable design

In civil engineering, equality would be building a road or tunnel that simply allows everyone to get from one location to another.

Equity would be constructing one that ensures everyone has equal access to the resources they need to safely get to their destination.

Installing stairs, ramps and lifts recognises that people have different needs and abilities.

The goal isn’t to give everyone the same thing, but to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to complete their journey.

Equity is about providing for everyone. Sometimes this isn’t just about thinking about the first user group that comes to mind.

There are many reasons why people might need a ramp to access a building.

It could be to cater for someone who uses a wheelchair or is heavily pregnant. Perhaps for somebody who has cerebral palsy, or for an employee who needs to carry heavy packages into the building.

This is equitable as it enables everybody to come to work and do their job.

Equitable work practices

Although providing the same compensation and resources may be considered equal, it’s not equitable if the person is from a low-income family and needs additional support.

Allowing employees to pick their benefits may see some prioritise more annual leave, while others may pick to have a more comprehensive health insurance package, for example.

Today, flexible working policies can also be seen in some cases as providing equality, but not always equity.

Having set office days each week for all employees may be equal, but equity would recognise that some employees may need to come to the office 0 or 100% of the time (and degrees in between).

As such, having available space to accommodate this is crucial for an equitable approach.

Equity also comes into play when scheduling meetings or events – ensuring they don’t all fall in the afternoon, around school pick-up.

Equity is a gamechanger

Equity is the gamechanger that will help the engineering industry, and society, to level the playing field and create a truly inclusive and diverse industry where everyone feels valued and supported.

By striving for equity, we can create more inclusive and supportive environments where everyone can thrive.

Just remember to ask yourself: is there an alternative where everyone feels valued and encouraged, regardless of their background or experience?

  • Tarisiro Fundira, civil engineer at Mott MacDonald
  • Njemile Faustin, senior to principal geotechnical engineer at AECOM
  • Rachel Hayden, engineer at WSP